If you’re an IT Pro, I would venture to guess that you’ve been in the middle of the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) at least once, possibly without knowing its name. WinRE is a small, efficient, and surprisingly robust little operating system that ships with Windows 10. For the majority of the time, you use WinRE to recover from an issue booting into Windows. There are a good number of other use cases for manually utilizing its features, but when you can’t get into Windows, it’s WinRE to the rescue! Let’s explore how it works, how to access it, and all it can do.
WinRE is typically used to fix something. It’s generally installed in a separate partition on your computer immediately following your ‘system’ Windows 10 partition, your ‘C:’ drive. On my computer, you can see below, it’s the 727 MB Healthy (Recovery Partition).
If you’re familiar with Windows PE (WinPE), you can think of WinPE as the core OS, and WinRE as the UI to access all the recovery tools.
The 4 main options you see when first launching WinRE are:
There are several ways to access the user interface of WinRE:
There are also two less-known access methods for WinRE:
Now that you’ve achieved the Zen level of WinRE (the main portal screen), what to do? Depending on the journey you took to get here, your options will differ. As an example, if you booted using a USB stick or DVD, you won’t see the Reset this PC option. Let us explore each option and harness the power:
Use a device
Even though you can use the built-into Windows 10 ‘Reset this PC’ option, you may want to COMPLETELY wipe the hard drive and install Windows from scratch. To guarantee the cleanest possible start, you can boot to a DVD or USB stick with Windows 10 installation media and install Windows 10. Some computers make it tricky to be able to boot into a ‘Boot Menu’ so you can choose what device to use. This is a nice, fool-proof method to get you there.
Thankfully over the years, the Windows development team has steadily been consolidating various tools into this one menu. Let’s explore each item, one by one.
dism /image:c:\ /cleanup-image /restorehealth
You do have the option of running this at an administrative command prompt to disable WinRE.
This is not recommended as some Windows 10 features will not work, including many in this blog post. Also, after the next Feature Update is installed, it will be re-enabled as it is required by the Windows Update engine for the upgrade process.
Permission and authentication
If you happen to be a Windows Insider, you may have noticed as of Build 19536, the default authentication requirements were adjusted to NOT require local administrative rights to use most of these tools. This allowed for passwordless accounts and Azure Active Directory accounts that weren’t backed up with a local admin account. If you manage devices using Intune (MDM), you can configure the Security/RecoveryEnvironmentAuthentication policy to require local admin access for these tools.
Booting into RAM
Just be aware that when using WinRE, you’re likely running on the X: drive. When you open a command prompt or use the command environment, it will default to the X: drive. This is temporary, running in RAM. Any files you happen to save to the X: drive will be gone when you reboot your PC!
Make sure you have the BitLocker recovery password for the volume you’re working on. Depending on some configuration settings and how you boot into WinRE, you may be asked for this key.
Recovery Partition Layout
In the past, Microsoft placed the recovery partition for WinRE before the main system, C: drive Windows partition. This proved difficult to update WinRE. As of Windows 10, version 20H1, they’ve officially specified during setup that the partition for WinRE comes last, as seen in my screenshot towards the top of this article.
Make sure you don’t assign any drive letters to this volume or copy any files to it. It needs to remain ‘frozen in time’ in order to operate properly when you most need it!
Well, now that is a lot to know! Again, Microsoft has done a wonderful job of bringing a lot of different tools and resources into one, cohesive interface to handle all your ugly situations of not being able to get into Windows. If you have any questions about any of the features here, feel free to leave me a comment!